What Could Government Innovators
Learn from Business Innovators?
Originally posted to Changepapers.org on November 19, 2009 by Leslie Boney + Matthew Muñoz
Innovation in the government space may be the greatest — and most important — opportunity for NC over the next ten years. Seriously.
Government processes, infrastructure and policies should be more innovative — we have an obligation to use taxpayer dollars more efficiently and effectively and meet critical public needs. And government must be better — our state faces huge challenges that government needs to help us solve.
But where could government start? We have some ideas, and they come from the business world.
Innovation, which we define as the translation of "new ideas and technologies into new systems, products and services," has come to business in six broad areas over the past twenty years. Each of those areas raises some possible areas government might look for progress over the next ten (or twenty) years. Make no mistake: government is different from business. But make no mistake: government can learn something from the hard lessons business has learned and the progress it has made.
Lessons from the business world?
1. More machines, digitization:
What's already happened in business?: Over the past twenty years machines have replaced people in any number of businesses. That's one of the ways that we are able to produce, for example, more textile products than ever with less than 30% of the textile workforce we had in 1990. The job cuts are painful, but they also enable remaining textile companies to keep their doors open and compete with the rest of the world. Even after 20 years, business is still finding new efficiencies: a new report finds US productivity increased at an annual rate of 9.5% in the business sector overall and 13.6% in the manufacturing sector in the third quarter of this year.
What could happen in government?: This is the area where government has taken the most steps so far; but it has still only scratched the surface of possibilities. Digitization of records will cost more government jobs, but in a "smaller government" scenario (see "starvation" notes in Paper 08) it will also improve access and "hours of service," and could free up people to perform service that people value more. It is painful but it will enable us to do more with less.
2. Increased outsourcing, revamped back office operations, aggregation
What's already happened in business?: We may complain about the range of things businesses have done to move work to places where they can make goods or purchase services more inexpensively, and we may be frustrated by the mergers and closings of neighborhood branch plants, but on some level we know businesses are doing what it takes to remain competitive. We may not like to admit it, but at the end of the day, if quality is equal, we as consumers will choose the lower priced product or service made all or partially somewhere else over the higher priced product made here. Businesses know that.
What could happen in government?: Governments on starvation diets will take a hard look at what they can do most efficiently, and which pieces of their operation they can hire someone else to do for them. Small towns will consider working with other small towns to do joint billing of customers. They'll look for bigger, shared water facilities or power coops. They'll increase work from home options and shared work areas to reduce work space needs. Police departments will form purchasing alliances with other police departments to get better deals on weapons or patrol cars or flak jackets. North Carolina's 100 counties may never consolidate, but sheriff's departments in big counties may soon share patrol duties with sheriff's departments in the next county over. And their customers (that's us) will see that government is finding innovative efficient ways to deliver the same service for less.
3. Improvements to product, processes and services:
What's already happened in business?: Cautious businesses have been investing in such "little I" innovations as making known products better (versions 2.0, 3.0, etc.), extending known brands (Reese's Pieces, Reese's Whipps, Reese's FastBreak, Reese's Nutrageous, Reese's Broccoli [okay, I made the last one up]), setting up just-in-time supply chains to reduce inventory or offering enhancements to existing services (instant responses to consumer problems, etc.).
What could happen in government?: Improvements to products may come from listening to customers (taxpayers) and front line staff or investing in enhanced staff training; improvements to processes may come from flexible schedules that extend hours and reduce wait times; improvements to services may come through streamlined permitting procedures for certain types of projects or estimated wait times (expect response in 4 days) or proactive notification of services (when will my garbage be picked up or what are the new hours for the library?) or creative bundling of multiple agency services into new "one stop" shops (can I pick up my unemployment check at the social services office?).
4. New products, services
What's already happened in business?: Innovative companies have been investing in new product development during the downturn, knowing that people will buy new products and services if the company can provide them a unique benefit, and knowing equally well that if they don't have a constantly renewing set of unique products and services, another company with lower manufacturing or personnel costs will be able to underprice them.
What could happen in government?: As starvation begins, state and local governments should be looking for new, unique ways to offer consumers the public services they need. The customers themselves will come up with some of the innovations, if they know they are being taken seriously; government employees will come up with other ideas, if they are asked and if they know their ideas are welcomed.
What sort of ideas? How about:
The actual lists are best developed by those who use the services, but the ideas exist and can be developed and delivered at all levels of government
5. New analytics
What's already happened in business?: New technologies enable businesses to much more narrowly target their advertising; to get instant feedback on consumer response to their products and services; determine if their websites are effective or a waste of money. The feedback, in turn, gives them the opportunity to fine tune their products and better serve their customers.
What could happen in government?: Take advantage of the new analytics to determine what government is doing well, what it's doing poorly, what the public wishes it did more or less of. In the past, some government agencies had a "take it or leave it" approach; in the new world, it is not only a good strategy; the public is coming to expect those who provide services to do this as a matter of course.
6. Increased responsiveness
What's already happened in business?: Business has learned, painfully, how ignoring customers feedback can doom their products in the blogosphere and in the larger court of public opinion. Crowdsourcing solutions to company problems has gone from a fad of the month to standard business procedure – there is more wisdom in the crowd than in any company's R&D department alone. People expect to have their complaints listened to, responded to and acted on quickly. And if they don't get quick response, things can get ugly pretty quickly.
What could happen in government?: A public accustomed to more responsive companies expects more responsiveness from every institution they are involved with. They increasingly expect that from government too. What would happen if government asked the public for help in developing innovative solutions to key challenges we face? Chances are good we would collectively come up with better ideas than if the only ideas come from Bob in Accounting (bless his heart).
We welcome other ideas from in-state resources such as the UNC School of Government, a current and potential future proactive clearinghouse for innovation (disclosure: I work for the UNC system), NC League of Municipalities, the NC Association of County Commissioners, SEANC and, maybe even more valuable, ideas from the tens of thousands of people who work for our towns and cities and state. And we can't just look inward for ideas either: surely there are insights we can glean from formal efforts like the Georgia Tech Center for Innovation in Local Government.
The culture thing:
In previous papers and comments we have heard about the importance of creating a culture that values — no, demands — new solutions to the problems our companies or agencies face. That means finding creative ways to encourage experimentation, new ways of looking at solving problems. It means permitting failure and rewarding innovation.
Creating that kind of culture will take real leadership from our government leaders. If the Governor or a department secretary or a city or a county manager or a department head wants to launch a determined effort to empower an innovation-driven agency, the effort will attract attention. It also has the potential to fail. And it might just create a new way of thinking or "doing" government that can change a town or a city or a county or a state in a glorious way.
That's a chance we are just going to have to take. It's "I" time for our state to start working toward becoming the most innovative place in the world. And government has to be part of the effort.